In the last week of December 2019, 41-year-old Riyaz Ahmad Chattoo had dusted and washed his taxi to resume working months after the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status on 5 August 2019.
The government having evacuated all tourists and the lockdown in the abrogation’s aftermath ensured the crumbling of the tourism sector as well as public transport system in Kashmir. Work was difficult to find.
Mr. Chatoo has been in the transport business for over two decades but is now struggling to find ways to boost business as another lockdown – owing to the coronavirus pandemic – was enforced in Kashmir in mid-March, this year.
With the only workable solution, in the absence of a vaccine, to prevent the spread being physical distancing, the pandemic has added another dimension to the woes of Kashmir’s transporters who have worked for less than three months since last August. How does Kashmir’s overburdened transport infrastructure ensure physical distancing?
Mr. Chattoo is unsure of what the future of public transport in Kashmir will be. “If government allows our movement, we will have to fit into the new way of life now,” he said. “The only way we can maintain social distancing is if we reduce the number of passengers in the vehicle.”
Social distancing amid overloading
Despite the surge in cases of infection, the government has eased restrictions in the Kashmir valley and directed government offices to function as normal. This precipitates the need for a resumption of public transport but has come as a cause of concern for both transporters as well as commuters.
Shah Mohsin, a student at the Kashmir University, is dependent on the public transport to reach the university in Srinagar from his residence in Budgam’s Chrar-e-Sharif, a distance of more than 40 kilometres covered in two shared taxis.
26-year-old year old Mr. Mohsin pointed out that the public would not stay at home for long. “[The] government cannot police every person or vehicle,” he believes. “So, we have to use precautions and start a new way of living. I would prefer to travel in public transport even though the chances of transmission are high but we have no other option.”
Dr. Jahan Ara of the Institute of Management and Public Administration admits that maintain social distancing in public transport is a challenge. She said that a protocol akin to the one followed at airports should be introduced in public transport. “Maybe government would follow the same pattern like airlines,” she said. “But, that also seems difficult here as you have to allow only single person on shared seats, in that case it is also very difficult.”
Ms. Ara said that there was no clear policy throughout the country regarding protocols in public transport. “If they (authorities) would go for minimizing the number of passengers, then there will be issues with transporters. They can oppose it as they will be in loss or they (authorities) have to compensate,” she said.
Maintaining social distancing norms on the overburdened public transport, often overcrowded, is going to be a challenge. 46-year-old Mukhtar Ahmad Sheikh in central Kashmir’s Budgam district. Mr. Sheikh operates a minibus in the Pakharpora village. “I have no idea how we can resume our jobs,” he said. “If we reduce passenger capacity, we will face losses and if we hike the fares the public will suffer.”
In cities like the country’s capital New Delhi, The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) has suggested guidelines for the revival of public transport—among the suggestions is to make the wearing of masks by passengers mandatory.
The guidelines also suggest conductors must ensure passengers queue up to board and alight the vehicle and prevent overcrowding and to promote contactless payment of fares through digital modes of payment.
It also suggested that transport authorities and operators must communicate relevant and updated passenger information to avoid overcrowding and confusion and finally, that buses, terminals, and bus stops be sanitised regularly.
Following the policies of Delhi transport, in Kashmir the authorities have not so far come up with any such guidelines or order to resume public transport on roads. Talking to The Kashmir Walla, JK transport commissioner Pradeep Kumar says that “we are thinking to resumption of public transport soon and guidelines will be framed accordingly.”
According to secretary Kashmir Transport Welfare Association, Sheikh Mohammad Yusuf, said that given the adverse impact of the successive lockdowns since August, the public would also not be able to bear hiked fares. “This can be solved only if the government plans any concrete policy for both the public as well as us [transporters],” he said.
The association president, Mr. Sheikh said that the livelihood of about 1.5 lakh – drivers, conductors, helpers, etc – is directly linked to the transport sector. Additionally, there are about 35,000 registered maxi-cabs and more than 20,000 minibuses in the Kashmir Division, according to Ghulam Nabi Pandaw, president of the taxi stand union in Lal Chowk. “Owners, drivers and everyone are facing hardships,” he said. “On average, a driver earns Rs 1,200 -1,700 per day. During the lockdown, none of us have not earned a single penny.”
In Jammu, transporters staged a hunger strike on 2 June to highlight their demands for financial aid from the government as well as the permission to resume public transport with the government fronting 50 percent of the trip fare to facilitate operations at reduced capacity in order to maintain social distancing on-board passenger vehicles.
Many transporters are worried about paying the instalments on loans taken out to purchase vehicles in addition to the hike in taxes after J-K was downgraded to the status of a union territory. Mr. Pandaw pointed out that the token charge for a single-vehicle has risen from rupees 1,500 to 3,000. “This is an injustice to us,” says a group of drivers at TRC Srinagar. Overall more than 50,000 public transport vehicles have been grounded since the lockdown.
Parvaiz Ahmad Bhat, the president of the taxi drivers association in Kashmir, said that representatives of the transport sector, including minibus drivers, had met “He told us that they will soon come up with “good news” for drivers,” he said.
As the uncertainty still looms over the transport sector, Mr Chattoo is increasingly finding it difficult to cope as his savings are also running out. His taxi has is still grounded, gathering dust at the taxi stand in Srinagar’s commercial hub of Lal Chowk.
Left without work, he and other drivers gather at the shut taxi stand in Lal Chowk to pass their time. “Otherwise, I feel frustrated at home,” he said, adding that he has also started taking anti-depressants. “Whenever the situation turns bad, we are the first causality.”